OPINION: Phuket not yet ready for another tsunami

PHUKET CITY: With the fifth anniversary of the tsunami approaching, now is a good time to reflect on how well prepared Phuket might be should a similar disaster befall us in the future.

The sad truth is that we are still a long way from where we should be, even though public awareness of the threat of tsunamis is understandably much higher than it was before.

Apart from the change from wood to plastic loungers in some locations, most Phuket beaches appear to have changed little in terms of limiting possible damage and loss of life.

Some of the most devastated areas, most notably Patong, are more dangerously overdeveloped than ever – chock full of obstacles that would prevent a rapid evacuation, should one be necessary.

In many cases, especially along the beach road north of Soi Bangla, there are even fewer possible escape routes due to all the commercial development.

Even worse is the fact that for months Thailand has lacked an operating tsunami direct detection unit, the vital first link in conducting a successful evacuation.

The first buoy, donated by the US and deployed northwest of Phuket in 2006, ceased transmitting a few months ago. The reason? Some say that red tape and bureaucratic reshuffling by the National Disaster Warning Center (NDWC) rendered the agency incapable of changing the buoy’s battery, a responsibility that had long ago been agreed with the US.

The NDWC is now in a race against time to rectify the situation in a one-week mission that begins December 14. If successful, this could spare Thailand the embarrassment of having an unforgivable failure come under international scrutiny on the tsunami anniversary.

On a more positive note, the British Government recently put in place a new Internet-based tracking system called ‘LOCATE’ that is intended to provide real-time data about UK nationals in Thailand.

There are as many as 80,000 British subjects in Thailand at any given time in the high season, with some 5,000 residing in Phuket full time, according to some estimates.

Inevitably, some get into trouble. Imagine how much easier the work of the British Embassy would have been after the 2004 tsunami if all UK nationals had been registered in such a database.

It doesn’t take a tsunami to justify implementing such a system, however. LOCATE should be a tremendous aid to consular officials, expat residents and their families back home in times of crisis.

We encourage all UK nationals to register with the site and hope other countries, especially Thailand, learn to make better use of the amazing technologies now available for use in disaster prevention and mitigation strategies.

— Stephen Michael Fein

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